Review: Derrida: A Biography by Benoit Peeters

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Review: Derrida: A Biography by Benoit Peeters
  Benoît Peeters Derrida: A Biography  , Trans. Andrew Brown (Polity Press, 2012) [F]or me the great question is always the question who . Call it biographical, autobiographical, or existential, the form of the question who   is what matters to me … Who? Who asks the question who?   … It is clear that the who  withdraws from or provokes the displacement of the categories in which biography, autobiography, and memoir are thought.  –    Jacques Derrida, „I Have a Taste for the Secret‟ , Trans. Giacomo Donis (2001) The discursive forms we have available to us, the resources in terms of objectivising archivation, are so much poorer than what happens (or fails to happen, whence the excesses of hyper-totalisation). This desire for everything + n    –   naturally I can analyse it , “deconstruct” it, criticise it, but it is an experience I love, that I know and recognise.  –    Derrida, „This Strange Institution Called Literature‟, Trans. Geoffrey Bennington (1987)   There are too many angles from which we, with our wandering trajectories, might approach the subject of the life of philosopher Jacques Derrida, too many possible plans of attack, too many narrative routes, so many of which will have remained untraversed. * I would like to envisage an uneasy encounter, in a crowded, timeless Parisian café perhaps on the Left Bank, in the Quartier Latin, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, between an aging white-haired Derrida and his imaginary potential biographer. I see the ambitious scholar, an overflowing folder of loose notes on the small table before him, enthusiastically outlining his monumental project, this doubly epic undertaking of archival investigation and narrative craft. I see Derrida, always friendly, open, encouraging, but also intensely concerned with interrogating the supposedly naturalised conventions of such a traditional academic pursuit,  provocatively questioning the possibility of ever writing this particular life, and then of  biography  sui generis . As they speak of the shape of Derrida‟s life  and philosophy, he senses a slight loss of grip in this dangerous and joyous game of Othering, his life placed (up) against  –   in opposition to, but also close to, next to  –    his biographer‟s account. Over the course of the exchange, I envision Derrida raising two fundamental difficulties with the  biographical endeavour:  1.   Although inescapably the principal concern of any biographical study, the question „Who is Jacques Derrida?‟ is not straightforward, and begs that we ask another set of questions first: How can we ever know who „ Jacques Derrida ‟  is? How do we not naturalise the biographical „who‟ under  production? How do we describe or define, and so delimit, the many aspects we ascribe to „Derrida‟? Or h ow do we not assume a limitable and knowable subject, and still write?  –   All interrogations alluding, for Derrida, to the impossibility of answering that biographical question. 2.   How do we not naturalise the broader conventions of biography as a genre, this wily, cunning shaping of a life beginning with a birth and ending with a death, all the requisite markers along the way, a work of narrative craft reflecting as much the  brilliant artifice of the biographer as the life of the subject? How do we write the life of Derrida in a way which interrogates, as he did, the conventions of the styles, structures, genres, forms, et cetera, we are forced to employ? How can any  biography remain open to the illimitable possibilities of a reading of Derrida‟s life? And then, how can the biographer confront that infamous Derridean pronouncement  –    il n’y  a pas de hors-texte : there is no outside-text  –   and still write? The life must  be containable, and the biographer must know what constitutes the inside and the outside of this text to even make an attempt toward something like a biography. The imaginary biographer, confronted by the doubled impossibility of a Derridean biography,  posed by its own subject, must despair at so much abstract theoretical talk. As the two characters part, Derrida, never dismissive even in deep disagreement, warmly clasps his  biographer‟s hand, offers an inscrutable thank-you (ultimately empathising with the urge toward biographical archivisation, however sceptical he remains of its possibility, and of the risks involved), and wishes him the best of luck. * But this is a review of  Derrida: A Biography  by Benoît Peeters (who is best known as a comics writer, especially the marvellous  Les cités obscures , and also for his critical studies on Hergé, creator of Tintin), or is supposed to be, and not of some idealised Derridean biography which could sustain the multiple ambiguities, contradictions, and contradistinctions of Derrida‟s life and  philosophy (held together so intimately), performing the philosophy while narrating the life, all the while escaping the absolutist and totalising obligations of the  biographical genre that collects remnants of a life into a meaningful whole. Quoting Geoffrey  Bennington on the impossibility of a Derridean biography „worthy of the name‟, Peeters straightforwardly dismisses the thought that his could have been such a work. I envision Derrida raising a third, parenthetical concern here. He once confessed that everything he wrote was terribly autobiographical (as a form of relation to oneself), and in the interview „This Strange Institution Called Literature‟ (1987) spoke to Derek Attridge of hesitating „somewhere between philosophy and literature, giving up neither‟, before settling on „autobiography‟ as „the least inadequate name‟ for his works. Everywhere, he transgresses the  borders separating-without-separating the work of the philosopher from the everyday life they experience (philosophy does not  –   it cannot  –   exclude biography), so that the life of this  particular author becomes indelibly tied to his own critical ready strategy, this aporetic interrogation of the binaries, oppositions, and hierarchies structuring Western thought (presence/absence, inside/outside, et cetera) broadly staged beneath the uncapitalisable heading „deconstruction‟ , a responsiveness to the Other lurking within each supposedly assured identity or system  –   which is why the form of the biography, particularly rankles. Derrida‟s first major publication, Of Grammatology  (1967), professed the end of such a book as an ideological form (logocentric, linear and diachronic, teleological and absolutist) and  posited the beginning of „ writing ‟ ( the motile play of signifiers across the page, defying order and decidability but never slipping into a meaningless relativism or nihilism). Later, in his nominal thesis defence „The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations‟ (1980) , Derrida talks of his desire for new creative forms to better express the gestures and movements of his philosophy, a capacity to see different and often contradictory possibilities simultaneously, refusing to „square‟ or make total sense from the manifold semantic and hermeneutic potentialities, meanings now understood as contingent, superposed as intoxicating aporia, logical impasses or undecidable decisions which cannot and should not be made  –   a form (for want of an adequate descriptor) which must present so many challenges for the biographer that he couldn‟t know where to begin…  But this idealised Derridean biography is impossible, an unwritable book-to-come, a maddening Borgesian volume that could never exist. We should read the author on his own terms: he has written a biography of Derrida  –   and it is invaluable. * Derrida, in response to an intrepid interviewer posing a question concerning his Algerian ancestry (later published in  Points … : Interviews, 1974-1994  [1995]), once exclaimed : „ Ah,  you want me to say things like “ I-was-born-in-El Biar-on-the-outskirts-of-Algiers-in-a-petit- bourgeois-family-of-assimilated-Jews-but …” Is that really necessary? I can‟t do it. You will have to help me…‟  * The question of Derridean biography concerns Peeters for only a few brief moments at the very end of the short introduction to  Derrida: A Biography . But he quickly dismisses it for the gentle familiarity of genre conventions. The biographer must make decisions about the subject‟s life and the form of its presentation , and this is Peeters ‟  first and most important. In his hands, Derrida‟s is an unconventional life presented in a conventional manner  . Fashioned from the scattered, disorderly archival remnants of a life (which could never occur as a narrative) and interviews with countless friends and colleagues, this is a densely rich and comprehensively detailed document of a life lived rather than any laboured textual  performance of a philosophy espoused during that life, but also a hugely engaging, sympathetic, often moving narrative, marvellously defying the notion that the lives of  philosophers are rarely interesting  –   within the constraints of the genre and form. T he philosopher‟s  personal life, professional career, institutional history, and political involvements are portrayed over thirty-two chapter-vignettes, divided into three sections  –    „Jackie: 1930 - 1962‟,   „Derrida: 1963 - 1983‟, and „Jacques Derrida: 1984 - 2004‟    –   throughout which he remains just a man, singularly human, anxious, agonised, and flawed, „fragile and tormented‟, no real hero, unexceptional except for his intense intelligence. (Yet unlike David Mikič‟s recent „intellectual‟ biography   Who Was Jacques Derrida?  [Yale UP , 2009], Peeters‟ deliberately eschews any substantive exegesis of the srcins or contents of the work of Derrida‟s deconstruction, showing little interest in Derrida‟s phil osophy, its interpretation, or the influence his life must have had on its development.) The reader straightforwardly observes Derrida ‟s  life as he would have experienced it, unfolding in time, his success and failures, proceeding from beginning to end, with a sense of certainty at odds with the themes of undecidability, the impossibility of semantic and conceptual finality, that permeate his oeuvre. Immersed, the reader bears witness to his Sephardic Jewish srcins and his early childhood and youth in El-Biar on the outskirts Algiers before his departure for Paris in 1949 (including his exclusion from his Lycée when the Algerian government lowered the quota of Jewish students, surpassing even the vicious Anti-Semitism of the Vichy régime), always already half in and half out of French society. We travel with him through his education at the  Lycée Louis-le-Grand and then the École Normale Supérieure (he failed his first attempt at the entrance exam, but passed the second time, in 1952), his year-long stay at Harvard in 1956-7 (where he encountered the works of a major literary influence, James Joyce, for the first time), and the early years of his teaching career, which took him to Koléa (as a second-class soldier, by the accident of being drafted), before he assumed his first position at the Sorbonne in the early 1960s. Throughout, we see an institutional marginalisation in France,  but also a triumph in the United States, with regular teaching periods at Yale, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, University of California Irvine, and New York University from the mid-1970s onwards, and his generous frequent participation in copious international colloquia, and then the international rise of his intellectual profile, in the 1980s and beyond. He has his more controversial moments too: his infamous dispute with John Searle, his arrest for drug  possession in Prague, protests over the awarding of honorary doctorate by Cambridge, and his defence of Paul de Man against charges of anti-Semitism, amongst so much else. All the while, we experience his intense intellectual engagements and fruitful friendships with the like of Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, Michel Foucault, Sarah Kofman, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Emmanuel Lévinas, de Man, Jean-Luc Nancy, and so many others he was influenced by and influenced in turn, until his death from pancreatic cancer in October 2004. In Terry Eagleton‟s words a „professional dissident‟, responding to numerous acts of exclusion, experienced or only perceived, explicit or implied, Peeters‟ Derrida is found repeatedly pushing (up) against convention and the institution (and his biographer‟s populist , middlebrow depiction of the academy as an exclusionary and elitist subculture), and emerges as truly neither inside nor outside, as if to perform the vital critical gestures of deconstruction in his own life, an aporetic life during which he enacted différance  through the lived deconstruction of concepts such as speech, writing, ontology, democracy, friendship, love, desire, responsibility, inheritance, mourning, and death. It is an experience I love, looking for clues to comprehend the biographical basis of „deconstruction‟ as practiced or strategised by Derrida. In the end, then, despite its less-than-Derridean theoretical and formal tendencies,  Derrida  remains a beautiful monument to the life of this deep and dexterous philosopher, the most essential and influential of the twentieth-century, and worthy of the name. * „ If there is an ethics of biographers ‟ , writes Peeters, „ it can perhaps be located here: would they dare to stand, book in hand, in front of their  subject  ? ‟  
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